Rediscovering long submerged origins
ALEXANDRIA, Virginia––The Showing Animals Respect & Kindness booth in the main hallway at the late July/early August AR-2015 conference was a crowd-stopper.
Featured were one of the SHARK drones, one of the most powerful lenses outside of top-secret military use mounted on a tripod, and SHARK founder Steve Hindi, with fellow Animal Rights Hall of Fame member Janet Enoch and investigator Mike Kobliska, energetically explaining to all comers how they use their investigative technology to expose cruelty to animals that, before SHARK debuted in 1992, often went undocumented and unnoticed.
As AR-2015 attendees passed the SHARK booth to enter one of the two exhibition halls, they passed a huge video monitor displaying continuous loop footage of a cow-nosed ray-killing contest that SHARK and the relatively new organization Fish Feel documented and exposed on June 13, 2015 near the mouth of the Patuxent River on Chesapeake Bay, Maryland.
Relatively familiar by now with undercover video of factory farming, rodeo, and many other forms of animal abuse in the names of getting food and finding entertainment, conference-goers often stopped and gasped––much like newly landed fish––at the intensity of violence directed at cow-nosed rays, a species both uninclined and unable to do humans any harm, even to escape being shot, hooked, dragged, and eventually bludgeoned to death.
Getting past the SHARK monitor, AR-2015 conference-goers then encountered, just inside the exhibition hall doorway, a second much smaller monitor showing the same footage on the Fish Feel table.
Not new concern
Concern for the suffering of fish was not a new issue for either SHARK and Steve Hindi, who was motivated to abandon trophy hunting and fishing and become a vegan activist in 1990 in part by having observed how sharks and other fish fought to stay alive.
Neither was concern for the suffering of fish a new issue for Fish Feel founder Mary Finelli, a lifelong animal rights activist who has raised her voice on behalf of species of every sort.
But the prominence of concern for fish was new to the AR conference series, hosted since 1981 by the Farm Animal Rights Movement.
To those who wondered why, Finelli recited some surprising statistics: “Earth is home to more than 30,000 known species of fish, which is more than all the other species of vertebrate animals combined… Globally, an estimated one to three trillion wild-caught fishes and 37 to 120 billion farmed fishes are killed commercially for food each year. Hundreds of millions more are killed for ‘sport.’ Fish are also increasingly replacing other animals for scientific experimentation. Approximately one-quarter of all the animals used for research and education in North America are fish. Additionally, some 1.5 billion fish are used for aquariums.
“Fish are sentient individuals, as has been scientifically shown,” Finelli continued. “Among other important qualities, they are perceptive, communicative, and personable. For example, groupers use body gestures to invite eels to hunt with them and to indicate where food can be found. They then work cooperatively to obtain it.
“By far largest number of exploited animals”
“Fish are by far the largest number of exploited vertebrate animals,” Finelli emphasized, “and arguably suffer the worst abuses. Grievously, they receive the least concern, even from the animal advocacy community.
“Fish are not protected by the Animal Welfare Act, nor by the Humane Slaughter Act,” Finelli pointed out. “They are routinely impaled, crushed, suffocated, and dissected while fully conscious. Commercial fishing also kills countless whales, dolphins, birds, and other animals. It obliterates underwater habitat and wreaks havoc on ecosystems. Farmed fish are commonly crammed together in foul water. Sea lice can infest these fish so severely that their flesh is eaten to the bone. They are continually subjected to painful procedures, and many are starved for days prior to their gruesome slaughter.
“Years ago,” Finelli recalled, “Animal Rights International founder Henry Spira observed that activists’ efforts were ‘a drop in the bucket,’ since at that time farmed animal issues were essentially unaddressed. Farmed animals are now receiving much attention,” nearly two decades after Spira’s death in 1998, “but Spira’s lament remains largely true while fish (and shellfish), who comprise such a vast percentage of exploited animals, receive so little notice. By ignoring fish so, the animal protection community is itself being very speciesist.”
Finelli––and SHARK––meanwhile might be credited with reconnecting the animal rights movement with some of its deepest but long submerged roots by raising the suffering of fish as a subject crying out for moral consideration.
Spira famously hosted Princeton University bioethicist Peter Singer in Spira’s New York City apartment while Singer was researching and writing his 1975 book Animal Liberation, often identified as the spark that ignited the animal rights movement.
Singer recalled in a 2010 guest column for The Guardian, of London, that some of his first awareness of animal suffering came during childhood walks with his father. “My father told me that he could not understand how anyone could enjoy an afternoon spent taking fish out of the water and letting them die slowly,” Singer wrote, discussing a report by Alison Mood of the British organization FishCount.org entitled Worse Things Happen at Sea: the Welfare of Wild-caught Fish.
“There is no humane slaughter requirement for wild fish caught and killed at sea, nor, in most places, for farmed fish,” Singer wrote. “Fish caught in nets by trawlers are dumped on board the ship and allowed to suffocate. Impaling live bait on hooks is a common commercial practice: long-line fishing, for example, uses hundreds or even thousands of hooks on a single line. When fish take the bait, they are likely to remain caught for many hours before the line is hauled in.
“Likewise,” Singer continued, “commercial fishing frequently depends on gill nets––walls of fine netting in which fish become snared, often by the gills. They may suffocate in the net, because, with their gills constricted, they cannot breathe. If not, they may remain trapped for many hours before the nets are pulled in.”
At minimum humans kill about 150 per human per year, 17 times more than the global sum of mammals and birds raised for slaughter.
“Let’s assume that all this fishing is sustainable,” Singer wrote, “though of course it is not. It would then be reassuring to believe that killing on such a vast scale does not matter, because fish do not feel pain. But the nervous systems of fish are sufficiently similar to those of birds and mammals to suggest that they do.”
Culum Brown, Ph.D., a biology professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, co-editor of the book Fish Cognition and Behaviour, assistant editor of The Journal of Fish Biology, and editor of the journal Animal Behaviour, in mid-2014 published an extensive review of the evidence for fish suffering in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Animal Cognition.
Citing the key findings from a wealth of relevant scientific research, Brown argued that “It would be impossible for fish to survive as the cognitively and behaviorally complex animals they are without a capacity to feel pain.”
But, though long debated, this point is no longer in serious scientific dispute. Of greater note, Brown found that “Fish compare well to the rest of the vertebrates in most tasks,” with cognitive and behavioral attributes comparable to those of primates.
“Multiple complex tasks”
Various studies demonstrate, Brown reported, that fish can “perform multiple complex tasks simultaneously,” an ability that was until recently considered to be uniquely human; “have excellent long-term memories,” including of times, places, locations, social experiences, and aversive situations; “live in complex social communities where they keep track of individuals and can learn from one another, a process that leads to the development of stable cultural traditions…similar to some of those seen in birds and primates”; “show signs of Machiavellian intelligence such as cooperation and reconciliation”; use tools; and “use the same methods for keeping track of quantities as we do.”
Although mammals and birds have long been known to be able to count their dependent offspring, research demonstrating the ability of animals to count in other contexts has only recently emerged.
Do the math
Rosa Rugani of the University of Trento and Lucia Regolin of the University of Padova, both Italy, in the April 2009 edition of Proceedings of the Royal Society of Britain published details of experiments demonstrating that newly hatched chickens can add and subtract. Their work appeared to signify that the ability to distinguish among greater and lesser numbers is innate, rather than learned. Where previous researchers had asked “How soon do animals begin to count?”, the question became “How far back in evolution did numeracy emerge?”
The discovery of numeracy in fish appears to push the answer back at least to the evolution of vertebrates.
Social cooperation and complex planning ability among fish of differing species was reported in the December 8, 2006 edition of PLoS Biology by Redouan Bshary and colleagues at the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland, who had studied groupers recruiting moray eels to join them in paired hunting expeditions. Leaving the safety of their caves and crevices, the moray eels forage in coral reefs much like dogs going to ground after burrowing prey. While the groupers catch smaller fish who are flushed out into open water, the moray eels get those who hesitate or turn back.
Bshary et al found that groupers summon moray eels to join them in hunts with a set of head shakes which could be interpreted as a physically expressed interspecies language.
What fish have not yet evolved is just a communication system as obvious to humans as a scream to demonstrate when they feel pain. But the struggling of a hooked fish or a fish pulled out of water would be sufficiently obvious to most people––if they had not already told themselves that fish do not suffer, even when subjected to the worst cruelties inflicted on fellow humans by way of criminal punishment in the depths of the Middle Ages.
(See also Why was a convicted poacher named to Scottish Wild Fisheries Reform advisory commission?, EPA urges power plants to quit cooking fish & crustaceans alive, Tail-docking dogs & boiling crustaceans; and Scientists confirm: hurt crabs feel pain.)